This May, the fabulously camp Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Malmö, Sweden. Russia will, once again, not be taking part. It has been banned from the contest since invading Ukraine, in 2022. However, this year the Kremlin has promised its own rival musical event: Intervision.

Intervision isn’t Putin’s invention. A competition by the same name appeared sporadically throughout the Cold War, calling on acts from the Eastern Bloc and its allies. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and some of its former colonies were allowed to join the European Broadcasting Union, and hence become contestants at Eurovision.

It was not a smooth start. Russia initially sent Eurovision two Soviet-era acts who flopped. There was Philipp Kirkorov, the country’s self-proclaimed “king of pop,” whose ballads and outfits, replete with sequins, feathers, and tiaras, had already made him a household name (and, in the words of my somewhat misguided aunt, “the most desired man in the country”). He was followed two years later by the Soviet era’s most adored singer, Alla Pugacheva. Her song, “Primadonna,” achieved a less than spectacular 15th place.

Bad blood: when Russia hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, in 2009, its political intentions toward Ukraine were made all too clear.

Quickly, Russia realized that to make it at Eurovision they had to rid themselves of Soviet airs and embrace Western music. Moscow’s next act was radically different. Alsou was a 17-year-old British-educated chart-topper whose English-language song “Solo” had been written by an American producer known for his work with the Backstreet Boys. “Solo” gained second place at Eurovision 2000.

Money started pouring in, and the production value of Russian acts soared. Every year, the TV broadcast became a more glamorous affair, surrounded by talk shows, pundits, and live feeds from across the country. Under Putin, Russia began to view the contest as an outright battleground for soft power.

“Eurovision became a metaphor for Russia’s relationship with the West,” says music journalist Denis Boyarinov. The way Eurovision was handled in Russia was similarly a metaphor for the country’s still-authoritarian ways. While most countries selected their contestants through a popular vote, Russia assembled juries and internal commissions of TV executives, former Kremlin officials, and music producers tasked with handpicking the right artist, performance, and song to represent the motherland on Europe’s main stage. These artists were never the obscure, D.I.Y. bands that Eurovision is known for: Moscow fought to win.

You need to calm down: Dima Bilan won the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest shortly before Russia invaded Georgia.

Russia’s 2003 entry was the faux-lesbian teen duo t.A.T.u., by that time a global pop phenomenon. Four years later, it was the girl band Serebro, specifically created by Russia’s No. 1 pop-music producer to perform at Eurovision. But Russia finally perfected the formula in 2008, when the country’s only champion to date was the pop sensation Dima Bilan, who performed the Timbaland-produced song “Believe” on an ice rink, accompanied by a violinist playing a Stradivarius while Olympic figure-skating gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko circled them, making pirouettes to the lyrics “Even when the world tries to pull me down / Tell me that I can’t, try to turn me around / I won’t let them put my fire out.” It cost Moscow more than a million dollars to produce. Three months later, Russia invaded Georgia.

Under Putin, Russia began to view the contest as an outright battleground for soft power.

After Bilan’s win—and the country’s victory in the war—Russian Eurovision acts were increasingly tailored to meet the needs of Moscow’s militaristic foreign policy. “When Moscow hosted the 2009 Eurovision, it made sure to present itself to Europe as a great power, but one that was also welcoming,” says Boyarinov. At the time, the contest was the most expensive Eurovision Song Contest ever. Putin, then prime minister, inspected the stadium where the competition would be held, and street signs and television advertised the event with feverish intensity under the slogan “We Are the Champions.” As the world marveled at the scope of Russia’s production, protests in favor of L.G.B.T. rights were swiftly and quietly broken up on the streets of Moscow.

I knew you were trouble: t.A.T.u. performs in front of the Red Army Choir at the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.

Russia’s Eurovision entry that year made the country’s political intentions all too clear. The Ukrainian singer Anastasia Prikhodko, who had been disqualified from performing for Ukraine (she had sung an ineligible song in an earlier, qualifying round), had been scooped up by Moscow as their entry. This allowed them to not only boast of their culture of inclusivity but also to present her as a victim of Ukraine’s authoritarian ways. Her song “Mamo,” performed in Russian and Ukrainian, evoked the Soviet tropes of the two countries being brotherly nations. It was seen by some as a not-so-veiled threat of Russia’s imperial ambition.

Since Russia’s tanks first rolled into Georgia, Russian Eurovision entries have followed the same blueprint: female, fragile, innocent, and calling for peace. The exact opposite of what the country was doing on the world stage. Indeed, in 2014, the year that Russia annexed Crimea and started the war in the Donbas, the country sent the Tolmachevy Sisters, a duo of 17-year-old twins, to Eurovision to ask the world to “show some love,” just as their country was bombing its neighbor under the pretense of defending ethnic Russians. When the cynicism of their act was met with booing, Russia accused the West of waging a war against two innocent girls.

So, a proxy musical war followed. In 2016, the Ukrainian singer Jamala won the contest with a song about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of Crimean Tatars. The next year, the Russian entry for Eurovision, which was to be held in Kyiv, was a singer suffering from muscular atrophy. But when it was discovered that she had previously toured occupied Crimea, she was refused entry under Ukrainian laws prohibiting travel to the occupied territories. This allowed Russia to accuse Ukraine not just of Russophobia but of bullying a disabled woman.

We are never ever getting back together: the Ukrainian singer Jamala, whose song about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Joseph Stalin won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016.

Now robbed of the Eurovision stage on which to play out such machinations, Russia seems set to use Intervision as a similar propaganda platform, albeit to an audience of allied—and primarily authoritarian—states whose public opinion is of little importance to Moscow. “The contest can be resurrected, but no one knows what it’s going to look like,” says Boyarinov. “Belarus, Iran, and North Korea? I’m not going to lie, I’d watch that.”

“So far, Intervision sounds like any other crazy idea,” says the Russian artist and songwriter Dmitry Mironenko. “There are no rules, no dates, no artists.” One could argue, however, that Intervision is well underway.

Russian Eurovision entries have followed the same blueprint: female, fragile, innocent, and calling for peace.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a mix of older Russian rockers, pop divas, and one-hit wonders from decades ago have emerged out of obscurity with pro-war statements and songs devoted to Russia, its soldiers, and the supposedly holy war the country is fighting. Many of them have even been on trips to occupied parts of Ukraine.

Yulia Chicherina, one of the definitive stars of Russian alt-rock of the 2000s, has shed her tattoos, dreadlocks, and punked-up wedding dresses in favor of a military uniform patched with the Russian Z—and sings ballads about life in the trenches.

Roma Zver, of the rock band Zveri, whose anthems about teenage love in post-Soviet panel housing took the country by storm in the early 2000s, has been shown by Russian news channels wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest, looking into binoculars as he surveys Ukrainian positions in the Donbas region. But to Zver’s anti-war fans, whose awkward first kiss happened to the soundtrack of his band, this was akin to having their childhood put through a meat grinder. Other formerly rebellious punk bands such as Pilot and Alisa have also pledged their support for the war.

The benefits of courting official favor are obvious—shortly after his Donbas stunt, Roma Zver announced a stadium tour. Polina Gagarina, Russia’s 2015 Eurovision entry, regularly performs at Putin’s stadium rallies and is included on the list of the Kremlin’s “recommended” artists. Meanwhile, Jamala, Ukraine’s 2016 Eurovision winner, has been placed on Russia’s wanted list for unspecified crimes.

Anti-hero: the Russian singer Polina Gagarina performs at a Moscow concert marking the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea.

But even for musicians who toe the line, it takes only one indiscretion to be punished. In December, Philipp Kirkorov was filmed wearing a see-through shirt at the now infamous Almost Naked party in Moscow that infuriated Russian ultra-nationalists and made its way into the headlines—and Putin’s daily brief. Sanctioned by Ukraine for supporting the war, Kirkorov was anything but an opposition figure, but the release of his music videos was halted, his roles on multiple New Year’s TV specials were either cut or re-cast and re-shot in a matter of days, and his concerts were canceled. His last public appearance was a televised apology.

Russia’s groundbreaking 2008 Eurovision winner, Dima Bilan, was caught attending the same party and is now mostly seen in the occupied areas of Ukraine, surrounded by Russian soldiers and humanitarian workers, delivering portable heaters.

The days of skating with a Stradivarius and peace-loving teenage duos as envoys are gone, as is Russia’s soft power. The only way Moscow makes its point now is through death and destruction. This is Russiavision, a contest that Putin always dreamed of, where those refusing to represent Mother Russia are silenced, imprisoned, or exiled, and those opposed to Moscow are killed.

Andrew Ryvkin is a screenwriter, journalist, and Russian-affairs specialist